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From Gaza: finding words for the unimaginable

The humanitarian situation in Gaza is beyond words, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres told journalists this week when marking the passage of 100 days since the 7 October attacks by Hamas.

However, Guterres and others involved in humanitarian response efforts are finding many powerful words to describe the trauma in Gaza as they renew calls for an immediate ceasefire and safe, unhindered access for humanitarian aid.

After critiquing the violence of Hamas, Guterres said “the onslaught on Gaza by Israeli forces over these 100 days has unleashed wholesale destruction and levels of civilian killings at a rate that is unprecedented during my years as Secretary-General”.

As well, 152 UN staff members had been killed in Gaza since 7 October – the largest single loss of life in the organisation’s history – “a heart-wrenching figure and a source of deep sorrow”, Guterres said.

https://twitter.com/UN_News_Centre/status/1747251610076455025

Bearing witness

Following his fourth visit to Gaza since the war started, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini issued a statement describing “endless chaos and growing despair”.

“Every time I visit Gaza, I witness how people have sunk further into despair, with the struggle for survival consuming every hour,” he said.

“In the south, around Rafah, makeshift structures of plastic sheeting have mushroomed everywhere including on the streets, with people trying to protect themselves from the cold and rain. Each one of these flimsy shelters can be home to over 20 people. Rafah is so congested that one can barely drive a car amid the sea of people. The population of Rafah has almost quadrupled, with more than 1.2 million people.

“Everyone I met had a personal story of fear, death, loss, trauma to share. Over the 100 days, the people of Gaza have moved from the sheer shock of losing everything, in some cases every member of their family, to a debilitating struggle to stay alive and protect their loved ones.”

In Deir al-Balah, in the middle areas, Lazzarini visited one of the UNRWA schools turned shelter, which was overcrowded and filthy.

“I heard stories of women foregoing food and water to avoid having to use the unsanitary toilets,” he said.

“People were struggling for food and medicine during the day, feeling cold and damp during the night. They wish to return to their lives before the war but realise, with deep anxiety, that this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

“With the scarcity of commercial goods allowed into the Strip, the price of basic commodities has increased up to ten times, from the rarely available fruits and vegetables to baby milk to a used blanket on sale. Mountains of uncollected rubbish now fill the streets.

“The chronically ill do not have sufficient medicine and must learn to live with alternatives or do without, from basic insulin for diabetes to daily tablets for high blood pressure. People are not able to wash and stay clean. Long and repeated blackouts in telecommunications, including internet and mobile phones add to the distress as people feel cut off from the rest of the world. The siege is the silent killer of many.”

Lazzarini said there is very little information about the north of the Gaza Strip, as access to the area remained highly restricted and he was not authorised to visit.

Medical perspectives

Health and medical agencies are also providing grim reports of the state of healthcare in Gaza, describing severe overcrowding and patients lying on floors.

The World Health Organization reports that only around 15 or 16 out of 36 hospitals in Gaza are “minimally or partially functioning”, with the two major hospitals in southern Gaza operating at three times their bed capacity and running out of basic supplies and fuel.

Many of Gaza’s 25,000 health professionals are among those uprooted, making it difficult for them to get to work.

Sean Casey, WHO Health Emergency Officer, spoke to journalists after visiting Gaza for more than five weeks and visiting six hospitals.

“I saw patients in hospitals every day with severe burns, with open fractures, waiting hours or days for care, and they would often ask me for food or water. It demonstrates the level of desperation that we see,” he said.

Though stressing the need for greater access of both medical staff and supplies, he said that “overall, the most critical need is really a ceasefire because everything short of that is simply addressing needs on a day-by-day basis”.

Casey visited Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, located in the north. Gaza’s largest hospital, with more than 700 beds, “is now an emergency room that’s full of severely injured patients and five or six doctors and nurses”. Tens of thousands of displaced persons are living in operating theatres, corridors, and on the stairs.

At Al-Ahli Hospital, also in the north, he saw patients “lying on church pews, basically waiting to die, in a hospital that had no fuel, no power, no water; very, very little in the way of medical supplies and only a handful of staff remaining to take care of them”.

Further south, only 30 percent of staff remained at Nasser Medical Complex in Khan Younis last week, overwhelmed by patient numbers. The burn unit was staffed by one doctor caring for 100 patients.

Over the past three months, the Israeli Forces’ all-out assault on the Gaza Strip has drastically diminished the options for people to find medical care, according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

The amount of safe space for organisations to provide healthcare to people is now virtually non-existent. Constant evacuation orders and attacks on health facilities have repeatedly forced organisations such as MSF to evacuate hospitals and leave patients behind.

MSF has also published an interview with a surgeon who has been working in Gaza, Dr Aldo Rodriguez, who is originally from Mexico and has experience working in conflict zones around the world. He describes attacks on health services and the horrific toll upon children.

“Some of my most trying moments in Gaza were during the 20 to 25 surgeries I performed each day. I had very young patients who were the sole surviving members of their family and arrived at the hospital alone. I had cases of children one and two years old, victims of bombing, with traumatic amputations of the leg, at the level of the groin. Due to the high number of children arriving without any family members, we began to use the acronym WCNSF, meaning ‘wounded child, no surviving family.’

“Every day, I saw these children alone and devastated. Some said they were playing just before they were attacked. After the amputation they are left depressed, not wanting to talk. It’s a dramatic situation because it’s not just surgery – it’s everything that comes after that. Even if they are discharged, they hang around because they don’t know what to do and have nowhere to go. They may get better physically, but mentally they are destroyed.

“Before I left, the people I met in Gaza asked me to share what I saw and did during my time there, and the pain they are in. They want people around the world to know what is happening to the Palestinians of Gaza and what they are going through.”

https://twitter.com/MSF/status/1747723824882237846

Australia’s role

As the International Court of Justice considers a case brought against Israel by South Africa under the 1948 Genocide Convention, Foreign Affairs Minister Senator Penny Wong is this week visiting Jordan, Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the United Arab Emirates.

Minister Wong announced Australia would provide an additional $21.5 million in humanitarian assistance to the Middle East, including in response to the urgent and ongoing humanitarian needs resulting from the Hamas-Israel conflict.

This funding will be directed to conflict affected populations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and to address the ongoing regional refugee crisis, with a focus on women and children:

  • $4 million to the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to continue delivering urgent and emergency services and supplies.
  • $6 million through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), to provide urgent lifesaving assistance including food, shelter and emergency health care.
  • $11.5 million to refugee programs in Lebanon and Jordan, at this time of increasing regional instability.

However, it is clear from UN statements that massive obstacles prevent aid from being delivered to where it is most needed. Since the start of the year, just seven of 29 missions to deliver aid to the north have been able to proceed, according to Guterres.

At the Gaza border, he said vital materials – including life-saving medical equipment and parts which are critical for the repair of water facilities and infrastructure – have been rejected with little or no explanation, disrupting the flow of critical supplies and the resumption of basic services, he said. And when one item is denied, the time-consuming approval process starts again from scratch for the entire cargo.

The aid operation also faces major impediments to distribution within Gaza, including repeated denials of access to the north, where hundreds of thousands of people remain.

Large stretches of agreed routes cannot be used due to heavy fighting and debris, with unexploded ordnance also threatening convoys, and humanitarian notification systems to maximise the safety of aid operations are not being respected.

As well, frequent telecommunications blackouts means humanitarian workers cannot seek out the safest roads, coordinate aid distribution or track the movements of displaced people who need assistance.

“We continue to call for rapid, safe, unhindered, expanded and sustained humanitarian access into and across Gaza,” Guterres said.

Meanwhile, Dr Sue Wareham, President of the Medical Association for the Prevention of War, says the Australian Government must do far more to ensure international law is upheld.

In an article published by Pearls and Irritations on 11 January, she says Australia’s responsibility to act is not simply a moral one in the face of unimaginable human suffering, but also stems from our longstanding strong support for Israel and her policies.

“A declaration from Australia to the International Court of Justice in support of the South African case against Israel, along with an open declaration that Australia will not supply Israel militarily, would be far more powerful ways for our government to help end the current nightmare for Palestinians than by softly, softly words. They would also fulfil our obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty and the Genocide Convention,” Wareham wrote.

“Australia has strongly and appropriately – and repeatedly – condemned Hamas’ illegal attacks on Israeli civilians. Three months on, what’s still missing is Australia’s explicit condemnation of Israel’s collective punishment of the Palestinian people, and appropriate measures in response.

“Currently Australia is applying the rule of law very selectively and remains a part of the problem – not only for the people of Gaza, but also for prospects for peace for all Israelis and Palestinians.”


Previously at Croakey